By Aaron Howard
Keeping kosher now simpler than ever
Alex Pfeffer kashered the Houston Kosher Chili Cook-off last October. He oversaw 37 team kitchens at an outdoor event with more than 2,000 attendees. With vendors handing out food throughout the day, Pfeffer had to inspect the status of all food, ingredients and utensils involved in the cook-off: every detail from no sour cream in the guacamole, to no bugs in the cilantro and leafy vegetables, to no flavored beer being consumed. And, yes, this was an event where people drank more beer than at Purim.
If Pfeffer could kasher the Houston Chili Cook-off, he can kasher your kitchen. That’s one of the services he provides as executive director of the Houston Kashruth Association.
March is Kosher Awareness Month. Co-sponsored by HKA and TORCH. It’s a monthlong series of events that includes cooking programs, wine and food tastings, supermarket tours and educational programs designed to increase knowledge and observance of Jewish dietary laws.
The word kosher actually means “fit” or “proper.” The standards of what is fit or proper to eat derive from specifics enumerated in Torah, in the Book of Leviticus, and in Talmud, where the specifics were brought out, explained Pfeffer.
“There’s an education component to keeping kosher,” said Pfeffer. “TORCH offers a beginning class on ‘Kashering in Three Easy Steps.’ But, the process is much longer.”
Actually, kosher is a lifelong process because keeping kosher, like keeping Shabbat, is a life changer.
“When people are brought up kosher, they may not appreciate the level of sacrifice and commitment it takes somebody to change,” stressed Pfeffer. “We, who have always kept kosher, don’t know what we’re missing about shrimp. The reasons why people make a commitment to keep kosher vary. Very often, people may be looking to make a greater commitment to Judaism. So, while giving up meals at McDonald’s may be easy, eating out with your co-workers is very difficult for some people.
“One of our services HKA offers is kashering people’s homes, when they are ready to do so.
“First thing, everyone in the family needs to be onboard with the decision,” said Pfeffer. “What if someone in the family brings home a DiGiorno pizza? It’s just cheese and dough. One would assume it is kosher. But, the cheese must be made under kosher supervision. That little pizza is going to tref (unkosher) a kosher oven. And, everything that goes into the oven afterward until the oven is re-kashered will be tref. Kashering is more than ingredients. It is a process.”
If you think it’s difficult at the beginning to make your kitchen kosher, think about what a caterer or restaurant is required to do. For instance, in a deli, wax paper is used. Are the ingredients that go into the wax kosher? In a restaurant, are the ingredients used to grease the pans kosher? Thus, part of HKA’s mission is to supervise restaurants and food preparation establishments, so that ingredients that may not be considered important are checked. You cannot test new recipes without understanding all the ingredients.
Then, there’s the food-prep equipment itself. The integrity of the equipment must be maintained. If a business passes inspection in Houston, it receives an HKA hechsher. A hechsher is an identifiable symbol or a statement (often on the label of a product) certifying that its manufacture has been supervised by a competent rabbi and is kosher according to the rabbi’s standards.
An HKA hechsher is accepted by about 98 percent of the kashrut agencies in the country, said Pfeffer. That wasn’t always the case. In 2008, HKA applied to the Chicago Rabbinical Council (one of the big five national agencies) to give their approval and certification to the HKA.
“That was a milestone for the HKA,” said Pfeffer. “It meant anyone from across the country could eat at an HKA-certified facility. Since then, HKA has grown from a mom-and-pop operation to a community-centered organization.”
In 2011, the HKA conducted a community survey. More than 300 respondents gave their opinions about Houston stores, bakeries and restaurants. The results were shared with all the Houston establishments. Survey results pushed stores to do better, because they could see statistics, said Pfeffer.
One survey question asked: “What kind of kosher restaurant would you like to see open in Houston?” Some 76 percent of the respondents answered “meat Chinese.” In second place was Mexican, with 4 percent. Although the HKA invested many hours in trying to make that happen, said Pfeffer, HKA got close twice, but so far hasn’t succeeded.
“We want people to feel ownership in the HKA,” said Pfeffer. “We want it to be easy for anybody to keep kosher. Today, Houston has six kosher restaurants and many kosher bakeries. Many of the food companies we take on go kosher. We’ve overtaken Dallas in a range of kosher products, and they have more strictly kosher families than we do.
“We have people who keep kosher on various levels or who are on the way to growing in their commitment. It’s a mitzvah to keep kosher. We can tell you kosher is tasty, easier and more available than you think. When we kasher a home, 95 percent of what you have in your pantry you can keep, because so many food products are kosher certified in the U.S. these days.”
For a full schedule of Kosher Awareness Month activities, visit koshermonth.com.